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E. V.B. The 'Arab Spring' in North Africa and the Middle East: 2011-12

Volume One -> E. Resisting Oppressive, Dictatorial, Military or Authoritarian Rule -> E. V. Middle East and North Africa -> E. V.B. The 'Arab Spring' in North Africa and the Middle East: 2011-12

The mass popular protests that broke out in Tunisia in December 2010 were triggered by both economic and political factors. The fall of President Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, after 23 years of dictatorial rule, became a signal for protests across a large part of the Arab World. In Egypt, where there was already a growing and organized political opposition, the major uprising began on 25 January and its drama centred on Tahrir (Liberation) Square. People power in Egypt also had initial success, in forcing the resignation and later trial of President Mubarak. Large demonstrations demanding greater democracy spread across much of the Arab world, with impressive protests in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. The Bahrain protests were brutally crushed with the aid of the Saudi-Arabian rulers but dissent continued, some political reforms were promised, and change seems possible. In Yemen tribal and regional divisions have resulted in episodes of armed conflict, but unarmed demonstrations demanding democratic change have also continued. In Syria, after months of extraordinarily brave continued demonstrations, which resulted in thousands of deaths and arrests, deserting troops began to organize some armed resistance, primarily designed to defend the people in the most rebellious towns. During 2012 fighting became more widespread and destructive and extremist Jihadi groups began to become prominent in the armed struggle. The increasing number of deaths, and flow of refugees into Lebanon, prompted Arab League, and eventually UN, intervention – though negotiators and observers on the ground had little success in moderating the regime’s attack on its people.

The monarchies in both Morocco and Jordan responded swiftly in 2011 to signs of protest spreading to their countries by promising constitutional reforms, although their failure to deliver satisfactory change has led to some subsequent protests. The Saudi royal family, however, made clear it would not countenance any proposals for political change. The repressive politics and society of the kingdom are not, however, wholly immune to change. Some women have been contesting with some success the draconian restrictions imposed upon them, for example the ban on women driving cars. In Algeria there were also youth protests in early 2011, often violent, but calls for a pro-democracy rally on 12 February by a coalition of groups only mustered a few hundred protesters.

The country where initially unarmed protests were directly superseded by civil war was Libya, where regional and tribal divisions were manifested in the liberation of Benghazi whilst Colonel Gaddafi continued to control Tripoli (although not all the denizens of the city supported him) and key towns associated with him. The intervention of NATO (backed by the Arab League and initially with formal UN support) provided the air power that tipped the military scales, but only after fierce fighting and many deaths.

The Arab Uprisings had parallels with 1848 in Europe, a region-wide set of mutually inspired popular revolts against autocratic regimes, but more directly with the ‘velvet revolutions’. of 1989 in the Soviet bloc. Despite degrees of physical violence (often defensive), the emphasis of the first few months of 2011 was on unarmed resistance. Demonstrators often stressed to reporters that they were ‘peaceful’ in contrast to the violence used by the regimes, especially in Syria, until some of the deserting soldiers took up arms against the regime. In Egypt, the most significant of the ‘revolutions’ both because of the regional importance of Egypt and the scope of the protests, some activists were aware of Gene Sharp’s writings on the strategy of nonviolent resistance and also of the lessons of the ‘Colour Revolutions’.

Even in Tunisia and Egypt, where the protesters had initial success in deposing their presidents, it soon became apparent that bringing about a total change of regime would be more difficult – although by mid-2012 Tunisia had achieved a new constitution and peaceful elections. In Egypt, despite the trial of Mubarak, the military and security services clearly hoped to maintain effective control – and brutally suppressed some of the renewed protests. But voting did go ahead for a new constitution and presidential elections in an unprecedented free atmosphere were held in May 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi was elected as president, but began to antagonise not only his more liberal opponents but also some who had originally voted for him, through a number of arbitrary measures including forcing through a new Islamist style constitution. On the anniversary of his inauguration on 30 June 2013 huge crowds gathered in Tahrir Square and also in Alexandria and elsewhere to demand Morsi’s resignation. Muslim Brotherhood supporters rallied behind the President. The army intervened on 3 July to depose Morsi and call for new elections. Whilst many protesters welcomed the military action, the Muslim Brotherhood protested vigorously against the military takeover, were bloodily suppressed and then outlawed as an organisation. Morsi was under arrest and on trial by October 2013 and the future of Egypt very uncertain.

The trend towards greater repression in Egypt, evident by the end of 2013, was consolidated during 2014 with the arrests of thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and others seen by the military regime as subversives, including student protesters and journalists. In March 2014 a court condemned 529 supporters of former President Morsi to death, in response to earlier violent protests against the military regime. The regime gained formal legitimacy when Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who ousted President Morsi) was elected president in May 2014 with a declared 93 per cent of the votes cast - in a turnout of less than 46 per cent. His left-wing opponent condemned the election as 'an insult to the intelligence of Egyptians'. The election was boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood (though not by all Islamist parties) and the 6 August youth group, active in the 2011 movement, also called for a boycott. In December 2014 criminal charges against the former military leader, Mubarak, were dropped and in January 2015 the high court overturned the only remaining conviction against him.

In Syria the civil war, which developed out of the months of peaceful protest in 2011 and the desertion of many army officers and soldiers with their weapons, has since been complicated by the involvement of extremist Sunni groups – offshoots of Al Qaida – and since 2014, the even more fanatical Sunni group ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. These groups also seek the overthrow of the Assad regime – which is itself backed by Iran and Hamas fighters – but also seek to destroy the more moderate rebels. The successes of ISIS, both in Syria and Iraq, have caused international alarm and prompted US-led air strikes, exacerbating the already extreme humanitarian crisis.

Following the ‘Arab awakening’, events in many countries affected are changing quite rapidly. We will attempt to update this section regularly online at

Many journals have had special issues responding to the Arab awakening. Middle East Institute Viewpoints has had three: ‘Revolution and Political Transformation in the Middle East’, Vol. 1, Middle East Institute, Revolution and Political Transformation in the Middle East Washington DC, Middle East Institute, , 2011, pp. 45 , with contributions from Erica Chenoweth, Stephen Zunes, as well as authors from the region. Vol. 2, Middle East Institute, Revolution and Political Transformation in the Middle East Washington DC, Middle East Institute, , 2011, pp. 36 , Vol 3, Middle East Institute, Revolution and Political Transformation in the Middle East Washington DC, Middle East Institute, , 2011, pp. 32 .

Mobilization, vol. 17. no. 4, December 2012, contains an overview by Charles Kurzman. ‘The Arab Spring Uncoiled’, and articles on Egypt, Iran, and Syria.

Swiss Political Science Review, Vol. 17, no. 4, December 2011, pp. 447-491, dedicates a section with articles from leading US-based social movement theorists, including Mario Diani, William Gamson, Jack Goldstone, and Jeff Goodwin – ‘Why we were surprised (again) by the Arab Spring’, pp. 452-6 – with Sharon Erickson Nepstad on ‘Nonviolent Resistance in the Arab Spring: The Critical Role of Military-Opposition Alliances’, pp. 485-491.

Fisk, Robert ; Cockburn, Patrick, Arab Spring Then and Now: From Hope to Despair, London, Mango Media, 2017, pp. 292 pb

This book sponsored by The Independent newspaper is written by its two major Middle East reporters and cover the events of 2010-11 and the aftermath.  Both correspondents have extensive expertise on their area, and have tended to diverge in their assessments from much mainstream western reporting.